Tagging Buffies Under the Midnight Sun

Buff-breasted sandpipers, or buffies, are an unusual species of shorebird.  Males defend small territories on leks, where they court females through an elaborate wing display. Based on this display or perhaps the spotting on the males wings, females select a mate, copulate, and then leave to nest on their own.

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Single-wing display of a male buff-breasted Sandpiper. Photo courtesy of Ted Swem.

Buffies are long-distance migrants that breed in the Arctic and winter in the coastal regions of Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay. The species is listed as Near Threatened on the International Union for Conservation of Nature list and is on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Birds of Conservation Concern 2016 list. In collaboration with the Migratory Bird Management Division of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, we trapped male buffies in northern Alaska on their leks and attached tiny GPS satellite transmitters to determine where they go after the breeding season. We could only equip males with transmitters as the females are too small to successfully carry the tags. Very little is known about how Buff-breasted Sandpipers use the Arctic coast (e.g., if and where stopover sites occur), although it is thought they remain in the high Arctic for more than a month prior to migrating south through the center of North America. Information on shorebird movements and habitat use along the Arctic Coast is critical to conservation planning and implementation. Baseline data are essential to evaluate how changes in coastal areas are affecting shorebirds, especially because the Arctic coast will continue to change due to sea level rise and greater erosion during the late summer and fall open ice season, and receive lower levels of siltation of river deltas as glaciers recede. The lack of baseline data makes it difficult to assess the potential effects, especially cumulative effects, of industrial development that is changing the Arctic coast.

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12:30AM. Two biologists hold a mist net between two poles and attempt to drop it over a displaying buff-breasted sandpiper. Capturing birds is difficult unless males are distracted by avian predators flying overhead or females visiting their display sites. Photo credit: Devon Short, WCS.

Only one month after tagging, some of the male buffies have moved east all the way to Banks and Victoria Islands. It will be very exciting to find out where they go next. Our transmitters will hopefully continue to provide GPS-quality location data until mid-August by which time the birds will have reached Texas as they travel toward their South American wintering areas…or points as yet unknown!

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1:00 AM. Taking measurements and attaching a satellite transmitter. Photo: Rebecca Bentzen.

This locational data on Buff-breasted Sandpipers is part of a much larger effort to assess shorebird use of coastal sites by many other species. Once all the location data is collected, we can ascertain the relative importance of coastal sites to shorebirds overall, aiding managers in assessing potential issues for current and future developments. We will also learn much more about how this and other species travels across the Arctic and during their southbound travels within North, Central and South America. Where necessary, conservation actions can be initiated at the most important sites rather than guessing where conservation funds can best be spent. Such targeted efforts will lead to increased conservation success.

This project is a partnership between Manomet Inc., the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the U.S. Geological Survey, and BP Alaska Inc.  Major funding was provided by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and by donors to Manomet.

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Map showing the movements of male buff-breasted sandpipers tagged at Prudhoe Bay, Alaska in June 2017.

Written by Rebecca Bentzen, Avian Biologist, Arctic Beringia Program, Wildlife Conservation Society. July 2017.

 

In it for the long haul

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A tundra swan and cygnet swim in one of the Prudhoe Bay study plots. Photo K. Scheimreif.

WCS and BP Exploration (Alaska), Inc. have been working together since 2003 to monitor nesting birds in the Prudhoe Bay area. Each year WCS field researchers head up the Haul Road from Fairbanks on the long drive to Prudhoe, stopping on the way to look for rare or unusual birds such as bluethroats or Arctic warblers. Getting there is part of the adventure.

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Dryas flowers bloom on raised ground in one of the drier plots at Prudhoe Bay. Many of the study plots are inundated with water in spring and into summer. Snow and water cover is a parameter measured by the long-term nest monitoring study. Photo K. Scheimreif.

Researchers spend June and July working in 12 plots established in 2003, searching for  nests of shorebirds, songbirds, and waterfowl. Nests are marked and monitored throughout the season and the “nest fate” is determined. After birds are no longer observed at the nest, observers search the nest cup and surrounding area for clues of either hatching or depredation. These clues include the presence of broken egg shells, egg membranes and egg teeth left after a successful hatch, and occasionally predator tracks. In addition, researchers conduct predator counts, snow and water surveys, lemming surveys, and keep track of each species seen on each day throughout the field season. All of this in exactly the same locations as in previous years, using the same protocols.

The value of long-term data sets with consistent protocols like these cannot be over-emphasized. They provide a way to quantify ecological responses to a changing environment, data for understanding ecosystem processes that occur over long periods of time, and information useful to land managers (including industry operators) for policy development and decision making (Lindenmayer, et al. 2012). Oftentimes data sets such as these reveal additional information of an entirely different ilk, valuable for other reasons than that for which they were originally intended.

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Peter Detwiler measures the length of a shorebird egg before replacing it in the nest. Photo K. Scheimreif.

Literature cited:

LINDENMAYER, D. B., LIKENS, G. E., ANDERSEN, A., BOWMAN, D., BULL, C. M., BURNS, E., DICKMAN, C. R., HOFFMANN, A. A., KEITH, D. A., LIDDELL, M. J., LOWE, A. J., METCALFE, D. J., PHINN, S. R., RUSSELL-SMITH, J., THURGATE, N. and WARDLE, G. M. (2012). Value of long-term ecological studies. Austral Ecology, 37: 745–757. doi:10.1111/j.1442-9993.2011.02351.x

Long-term Nest Monitoring at Prudhoe Bay

This year, 2015, marks the 13th season of our long-term nest monitoring project on the North Slope, and it started out hot and fast. Due to unusually warm weather in late May, snow had all but melted upon our arrival in Prudhoe Bay, and many birds were already incubating nests.

Working within the oilfields has given WCS an opportunity to monitor large areas of tundra at the unique intersection of wildlife and industry. Photo Zak Pohlen

Working within the oilfields has given WCS an opportunity to monitor large areas of tundra at the unique intersection of wildlife and industry. Photo Zak Pohlen

Through a series of rope-dragging and behavioral observations, our two-person crew captured the ephemeral breeding season of the many shorebird, waterfowl, and passerine species that breed on the North Slope. Each year crews thoroughly cover a total of 120 hectares of tundra to assess initiation dates and success of tundra nesting birds.

Here, Callie Gesmundo is dragging a rope to flush birds off of their nets. This proved to be the best method for finding many species that are reluctant to flush until an observer, or rope, is nearly on top of them. Unfortunately, dragging a 50m long rope over tussocks, polygon rims, and willow shrub is both a physically and mentally demanding exercise!

Here, Callie Gesmundo is dragging a rope to flush birds off of their nets. This proved to be the best method for finding many species that are reluctant to flush until an observer, or rope, is nearly on top of them. Unfortunately, dragging a 50m long rope over tussocks, polygon rims, and willow shrub is both a physically and mentally demanding exercise!

Clear sunny days and record high temperatures defined the first half of the season. Nearly all of our nest searching occurred in June, and almost 50% of the nests hatched in June as well. July followed with much cooler temperatures and we spent the majority of our time determining nest fate. This year, within our long-term study plots, we found a total of 123 nests of 13 different species. Pectoral Sandpipers were the most abundant nests found, followed closely by Lapland Longspurs and Semipalmated Sandpipers.

Semipalmated Sandpiper chick Photo Zak Pohlen

Semipalmated Sandpiper chick Photo Zak Pohlen

Determining the fate of each nest is an important aspect of the project, and often much harder than simply finding the chicks in the nest bowl! Nest visits after the chicks have left the bowl are an unfortunate occurrence, and other means must be used to determine the fate of the nest. Eggshell tops and bottoms nearby or small eggshell fragments within the bowl are good indicators of a successful nest.

A hatching Stilt Sandpiper nest. Photo Z. Pohlen

A hatching Stilt Sandpiper nest. Photo Z. Pohlen

With this season in the books, we look forward to the insights gained from another year of this long-term study.

Lapland Longspurs are the only passerine that we found nesting on plot, and the only species with altricial young. The constant feeding from both parents is often an easy way to find their nests after the eggs have hatched. Photo Zak Pohlen

Lapland Longspurs are the only passerine that we found nesting on plot, and the only species with altricial young. The constant feeding from both parents is often an easy way to find their nests after the eggs have hatched. Photo Zak Pohlen

Arctic Shorebird Research and Conservation

On the North Slope of Alaska, at Prudhoe Bay and Ikpikpuk River, and in northern Chukotka at Chaun River Delta and Belyaka Spit, we are engaged in a project to assess adult survivorship of key shorebird species including the Semipalmated Sandpiper and Dunlin, as part of an Arctic-wide project to better understand population trends and migratory pathways of shorebirds species of conservation concern.

Male dunlin on the oilfields at Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. Photo by Zak Pohlen.

Male dunlin on the oilfields at Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. Photo by Zak Pohlen.

In 2014, we recovered about 20 geolocators from dunlin released at our Russian field camps during the prior two years. These geolocators, which establish a bird’s position based on light and time, now give us a much more detailed view of how these birds travel to their wintering grounds where we are concerned about habitat modification and hunting pressure.

Migratory pathway of a dunlin tagged with a geolocator at the Chaun Delta, Chukotka.

Migratory pathway of a dunlin tagged with a geolocator at Belyaka Spit, Chukotka that was recovered two years after its initial release.

Our work with dunlin is also informing our conservation planning for spoon-billed sandpipers which are now one of the world’s most critically endangered bird species.

Spoon-billed sandpiper  at Belyaka Spit.

Spoon-billed sandpiper at Belyaka Spit